Rock Lobster is Paul Sadoff. Quietly making frames for over 30 years in Santa Cruz, California, he’s one of those “best kept secret” types where most customers are local racers. There’s a National Champion or two, lots of cross (including sponsoring a team) and some mountain bikers. So you know Rock Lobsters are used, even abused. Pretty much all of them are TIG welded steel or aluminum, all custom made – no stock sizing. Each tube is specifically chosen for that customer’s needs. Ours is made from a dwindling supply of New Old Stock, Made in the USA, Easton 7005 tubes. Welding aluminum has its own challenges and having a frame builder that teaches it at the United Bicycle Institute (UBI) is comforting.
NOS Easton 7005 tubing
With an output of 100 frames a year, Rock Lobster falls more into the bike builder category, than the bike-as-art type. Paul is somewhat vocal about this distinction and has a blog dedicated to these differences. This is important: you and your frame builder must to see eye to eye. Perhaps Paul said it best in a recent post, “It is safe to say that I will never win any trophies at one of these [bike] shows. My attempts at artful frames have been barely noticed in a field of superior entries – I’ll admit that I am not the guy who should build you that rolling piece of art… My greatest hope is that upon seeing the [Rock Lobster] bike, a person would think: ‘I wonder how much fun I could have on that thing…’ There are no thoughts about paint, decals or finely filed lugs – it’s all about the ride.” Though this reviewer loves the eye candy seen at the North American Handmade Bike Show, he too would rather ride something more purposeful and less ornamental [note: ornamental can also be just as functional, though sometimes it isn’t].
PEZ interviewed Paul awhile back and one of the most fascinating revelations was his pricing “strategy.” A custom made aluminum Rock Lobster road frame costs $1,300 and a steel one is $50 more. You will not find anything custom out there for less. See, Paul wants people riding his bikes, so he decided long ago that these seem like fair sums. In the beginning this was an unprofitable affair, but instead of (logically) raising prices, he figured out how to become more efficient. Part of that efficiency comes from building in enough quantity and in batches and not being terribly fussy. Also, Paul does not chase after new technology or tricky features, he offers single powder coating options, standard bottom brackets, external cable stops, breezer drop outs and so on. You most likely could order a Rock Lobster with all the jazz, Paul is very accommodating, but then it wouldn’t be the simple $1,300 treat that it is.
Let’s Go For It
After our interview, we decided to go through the process and get our own Rock Lobster for review. If Paul’s bikes were as good as his philosophy, then Bike Sainthood must surely follow. Now, there are two types of bike builders, let’s call them Old School and New School – forgive the over simplification, these distinctions are more style than age dependent. Old School builders take a few important body measurements, ask what type of bike and how you intend to use it and then give you what you need. New School builders have detailed questionnaires, ask for lots of measurements and specific descriptions of your riding patterns and current bike and so on. They also expect the design process to be just that; a process – open to debate and revisions… oh, and then there’s complicated colors and graphics to consider. Paul Sadoff is Old School.
Your first indication of Old School-ness comes from Rock Lobster’s bike order form – a ratty, oft photocopied one-pager that is pretty lean. Tips leaned from online forums suggested writing on the back side a long-ish description of how the bike should perform. So we asked for a highly capable, perfectly balanced, climber-descender for the Dolomite mountains that handles like it is IN the road, not ON top of it.
So, off to work. It should be stated that we never waited more than a day or two for an email to be answered. Considering that at any given moment, Paul is juggling around 15 other customers’ concerns and this responsiveness become even more impressive. Also impressive is that the waiting list can be measured in months, not years. After welding up the frame, he sent a couple of photos and this description: “By the way, here are some frame numbers for you: Top Tube 55 c/t/c (effective), Seat Tube 49 c/t/c, Head Tube 140mm, Bottom Bracket drop 73mm, Chain Stay 41.5mm. I opted for a semi-compact design as that it what I primarily do. I hope folks in Italy don’t give you any crap about the slightly sloping top tube. This bike should be a lot of fun on the descents and nice and light for the climbs. Oh, yeah…..73 deg Seat Tube and 72 deg 30′ Head Tube. The best riding bike I have has this front end. You can use either a 43 mm or 45 mm rake, 45 mm will make it maybe a bit more lively than I like……it’s your call.”
Paul keeps customers informed along the process, here’s our raw frame
This looks pretty good, the positioning is sporty enough, but not extreme. The numbers that jump out are the long-ish chain stays and deep-ish bottom bracket drop, but we’ll get to these later. The last thing was to choose the color. Considering that the name Rock Lobster comes from a B-52’s song (though “52 Girls” is more enjoyable), an 80’s hue was required. We told Paul either Pepto Bismol Pink or Black Cherry would be fine. He answered, “I haven’t done a frame in this color in a long time, so let’s go with Black Cherry.” It came out pretty spiffy too, somewhere between dark violet and burgundy.
If it’s true that most people buy bikes based on price, color and weight, then we struck the mother lode with this build. The price is unbeatable. The color is our choice. And the frame weighs 1080 grams for a size 55. That’s light. If you’re hunting for a light weight race bike, it wouldn’t be hard to spec an 1080 gram frame in a build that hits the UCI minimum. And they cost considerably more and only come in limited black/red/white combos. In any case, it would not be that hard to hit the UCI weight limit with this frame. And a sensibly spec’d bike like ours tips in around 7.5 kilos – that’s just over 16.5 lbs.
The Bike Build
We hung an older 10 speed Campagnolo Record gruppo on this frame because it seems that lots of Rock Lobsters are upgrade or replacement bikes or dedicated racing ones that get what’s in the bike shed. The wheels are the same deal: reliable, smooth rolling Campagnolo Nucleons. However, they are wrapped in very special Veloflex open tubulars (clinchers) called Master 25s. These new, buttery supple tires are 25mm wide and they’re quickly becoming the new standard – the pros are all going wider for better rolling resistance and handling and more comfort.
The stem is 3T’s ARX Pro and the classic bend handlebars are 3T’s Rotundos in aluminum. While Paul can make you a steel or aluminum fork, he specs Easton or Enve for carbon. None were in stock to meet our deadline, so we got a Funda Pro also from 3T with a 43mm rake [note: the reviewer has done some consulting work for 3T and should probably refrain from any comments out of a potential conflict of interest, but won’t]. One of the main reasons for using everything from the same manufacturer is not only because it matches visually, but more so because of the tolerances… or one would certainly hope so. And this stuff from 3T (in fact, their entry-level stuff) does not disappoint. It all fits together perfectly so that the recommended torque-ing is more than enough to lock everything in place. One more thing about the Funda fork: after cutting it to the proper length, you have to epoxy in an aluminum tube that contains the star nut. We are undecided whether this is an ingenious solution or a finicky compromise.
To complete the build, we got a titanium seat post and clamp from PMP. These guys are based in Bergamo and make lots of cool, machined parts in titanium and aluminum like cranksets, hubs and so on. The saddle is a trusty Arione from Fi’zi:k. The Chris King headset is equally trustworthy. Before building up the bike, we checked the frame’s alignment. The Rock Lobster passed with flying colors with the frame, the rear drop outs and derailleur hanger (a good solid piece) all in accurate harmony. The brake bridge (an often troublesome spot) is perfectly level. In addition, the bottom bracket and the
head tube were nicely prepped. Attention to these kinds of details make the build-up go smoothly and are the signs of a thoughtful builder.
PMP do cool stuff
Now, The Bad
While many bike reviews will concede some disappointment in the saddle or another component to garner credibility, we have a couple of issues with the frame. However, they are not deal breakers and are both pre-ride nit picks, which are much better than ride ones. Although no one ever bought an aluminum rig for the beauty of its welds, there are a couple of wobbles and a toothpaste goober or two on ours. This would not be as apparent if some areas like the head tube or rear brake bridge were not handled so immaculately. Also, the overlapping beads on the seat tube from the seat stays and top tube are a bit chunky. Again, Paul’s not the type to spend unnecessary time filing or beautifying things that work just fine.
The top tube is welded beautifully, then there’s those seat stays…
The other issue is that the derailleur cable stops are located too far underneath the down tube which ensures some mighty cable rub on the head tube. This means that you have to run the cables crossed over under the bottom bracket. We have a couple of bikes set up this way and they work fine. This isn’t a critical issue, but should be noted.
Order yours with wider placed cable stops
Just Ride It
My first impression is that old rap about aluminum equating to a harsh, unforgiving ride does not stick to this bike. Though you’d never close your eyes and confuse it with the smoothest of steel frames, this Rock Lobster is no bone crusher as noted in the logbook, “over 4 hours in the saddle and knees still fresh.” It’s got gobs of that electric aluminum charge, yet the (relatively) small diameter, light weight tubing gives it some give. Also, the nearly 42cm, thinly tapered chain stays and somewhat long-ish wheelbase adds some dampening. Other contributing factors to our smooth-ish ride certainly come from the 3T fork that isn’t the stiffest on the market (they make one called a Rigida for that), hearty Veloflex tires (with plenty of room for 28mm), double wrapped bar tape, titanium seat post and cushy saddle. This Rock Lobster has the snappy acceleration of aluminum without being unbearable and it’s got good road feel without being buzzy. So far, so good.
However, the best (and perhaps only) way to judge a tailor-made bike is by how well it meets the customer’s needs. The geometry is spot on without the fit compromises we often incur with stock size M frames that can range from 54 to 56. This also adds to our comfort, frames that fit properly will always be more comfortable than frames that require compromises. I asked for a balanced ride, and I was given a balanced ride with good dose of confidence-building stability. And once again Paul shows his Old School-ness by giving you what you need. The bike is stable enough to put on and take off clothes while eating (another favorite test is clearing one’s nose on high speed descents, again, no problem here). A lot of this is due to the lower-than-industry-standard bottom bracket drop. Yet, the trade-off with a lower center of gravity is less cornering clearance, especially for cyclists with long crank arms – just be a little careful.
While some stable bikes can be whippy or sluggish at lower speeds, our Rock Lobster is plenty agile. That 72, 30′ head tube angle lets it slice through curves with minimal input, it’s easily driven with your hips. This is a very well behaved bike that has felt “right” from the very first ride. In fact, it’s so wholesome that it begs to be pushed hard, again from the logbook, “almost rear-ended a car while descending today. This bike simply wants to go fast.” We wanted a competent climber/descender and that’s what we got – a light snappy frame for going up and a stable, hipsway cruiser for going down.
If Paul Sadoff wants us to look at his bikes and ask how much fun can we have on them, after living with this one for a month, my answer is a lot. Its price and singularity of purpose make it one of those rare road bikes that look good dirty. Even better with a battle scar or two and best of all, with some stickers from grassroots sponsors. By no means is aluminum an obsolete bike frame material. Riding the Rock Lobster did not limit my performance, comfort or fun – I hardly missed my normal carbon fiber rig. Though it’s best to avoid debates with carbon devotees about stiffness or light-weight-ness, this frame has enough of both qualities. When factoring in the reassurance of a metal frame and cost, it becomes even more persuasive. And when it’s custom made… you might want to seriously consider a Rock Lobster for your next Statement.
Since receiving our Rock Lobster a few changes have taken place. Due to strong demand the waiting list is now seven months and Paul has had to raise the price for this frame to $1,400 – still a Statement. Now the good news, Rocks now can be ordered with tapered forks and BB30 or PF-30 bottom brackets.
See the website at RockLobsterCycles.com.